PLA chooses its battles with the US

Loro Horta says PLA strategy is to deter the US while it plays catch-up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 5:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 12:23pm

In 2010 the Chinese military was reported to have started tests on its most ambitious missile project, the DF-21A, an anti-ship ballistic missile. 

China's decision to use ballistic missiles for anti-ship warfare is unusual considering that targeting moving ships with a missile on a ballistic trajectory is much harder and requires more sophisticated navigation than cruise missiles. The People's Liberation Army decision to opt for an anti-ship ballistic missile  reflects the growing confidence and sophistication of its military industries.

Analysts are divided over the implications of the new system for the US military. Some claim it is a game changer and a threat to US forces in the region. Other analysts observed that the US military has several ways of defeating the  anti-ship ballistic missile, such as using decoys and by targeting Chinese support and communication systems. While both sides of the debate have raised valid points, one should not see the Chinese  anti-ship ballistic missile in isolation, but as part of larger process of military modernisation and a changing doctrine in the PLA.

Chinese military strategists have for millenniums been fascinated by asymmetric methods of warfare. China has no illusions about its military inferiority vis-à-vis the US  and knows that the status is likely to endure for at least two decades.

As such, the PLA has been developing a full range of asymmetric strategies to deter the US until its military reaches maturity.

Aware of the US dependence on space and satellite communications to conduct even the most basic military operations, the PLA has for the past decade invested significant amounts to develop anti-satellite weapons. In January 2007, China fired its first anti-satellite missile, destroying one of its own ageing satellites.  

The PLA's asymmetric warfare strategy is not limited to the domain of outer space, but extends to  land, sea, air and cyberspace. For instance, at sea, the  PLA Navy is not focusing on matching the US carrier for carrier or ship for ship as some might expect. China has been deploying a growing number of attack submarines, both conventionally powered and nuclear powered, with submarines accounting for 45 per cent of its naval combatants.

In addition to submarines, the Chinese navy is deploying thousands of land-based missiles, both ballistic and cruise types. The navy is also developing dozens of stealth fast-attack missile craft and corvettes such as the Hubei class catamaran. In narrow seas and close coastal environments, these vessels can be quite effective against larger craft.

In contrast, the US military has regarded asymmetric and other forms of unconventional warfare with marginal interest. The so-called US style of warfare focuses on offensive firepower and tends to neglect the defensive elements.

The question is not whether the US is capable of countering a particular system or not, but whether it's capable of appreciating the nature of an asymmetric strategy across all domains of the battle space. 

While the US  will maintain military superiority for the foreseeable future, China's asymmetric capabilities have the potential to mitigate this advantage. This could have a positive effect in the sense that both great powers deter each other. China and the US  have grown increasingly economically interdependent, sharing many common interests. This lucrative relationship may reduce the chance for tension. However, one should remember, in both world wars of the previous century, Germany was Britain's largest trade partner.

Loro Horta is a graduate of the People's Liberation Army National Defence University senior officers' course, the US Naval Post Graduate School and the US National Defence University. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.